This paper argues that there is an ethical choice to be made when implementing the virtual university. Either the electronic commerce model is adopted, with the necessary consequences for the tutor-learner relationship; or an alternative is sought in the professional pledge that a university requires its members to make, as part of a community. The paper begins by considering the growing importance of electronic commerce as a model to be applied to the extension of distance learning and thence by implication to the notion of a virtual university. What follows from this, as the moral grounds of the professional-client relationship in the virtual university, are then examined. Attempts to ground its legitimacy in the stakeholder model, as a variant of what underlies electronic commerce, are shown to be inadequate. Instead a covenantal model is proposed as the basis for such grounding. It is suggested that, unlike a contractual model, the covenantal model can embody the recognition of the learning process as a transformative act, and one that is fundamentally social, not individual. Only by confronting the ethical choice posed by these two models can the legitimacy of the virtual university in a world of the future be addressed.